Monday, July 8, 2013

Why denominations still matter now that they don't.

There is a lot of talk, and a lot of good reasoning behind it, as to why denominations no longer matter. This is exceptionally true in the muddle of main line Protestantism where the actual differences between what occurs on a Sunday morning at an Episcopal vs. Lutheran vs. Presbyterian vs. Methodist vs. Moravian vs. [insert name here] service is rather moot to everyone but rubric fiends like myself. If a person is looking for a liturgical worship on a Sunday morning and a faith community to integrate with then there will be a long check list of what they are searching for before what denominational name is in small print on the sign.

In praxis, that fancy word for practice, on Sunday morning every mainline Protestant denomination is using a somewhat similar Morning Prayer and/or Eucharist services with the only variances being hymnody and what generally appears to be inconsequential issues of ordering.[1] Likewise most mainline Protestant denominations are engaged in similar attempts at welcoming, inclusive, community integrated, etc. parishes and worship communities. So what comes about is similar to eating a delicious pastry along the streets of New York, the fact it came out of a Japanese school of Pastry baking and not a French is of little consequence to enjoying the pastry.

What a person cares about is can they take all their stuff with God into this community, and experience something Holy and blessed.  The simple reality is that for the average lay person the Venn Diagram of the mainline Protestant denominations is one of humongous communal overlap when it comes to experience. Combine this with the fact that all of them allow a high level of plurality of thought and questioning, especially amongst the laity, and it is easy to see why denominational allegiance is waning.

This conflation of praxis, however, does not mean that the tradition, theology, and history of individual denominations is suddenly moot. What has been lost is not the importance of our traditions but those traditions being used as the coat of arms for country clubs. People generally are not interested in being an Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc. because those are "my people", "my family", "my tradition", "my fast track to a raise and better position at work". They are interested in being part of a community where they can integrate and sort out their faith, spirituality, and practice.

So few are interested in being a Methodist, but many people are discerning a spiritual call that should be directed toward Methodism. Likewise Episcopalians now generally roll their eyes at the idea of being the bastion of the Christian Upperclass (a sure sign that in many ways we still are) but affirm very strong spiritual calls to Anglicanism. I might very well find myself talking to a seeker who will never live close to a Moravian church, will seek membership in an Episcopal one, but for whom the works of Jan Huss will be essential works for bringing to rest a personal conflict of faith.

So while I fully recognize that Denominationalism is of ever falling consequence to the new generation of Christian practitioners what I strongly suggest is that the historical community residing within the traditions of the various denominations is ever more of consequence. We must be able to not only connect people with a vibrant community in the here and now but also to the vibrant community of Christians gone before and help them identify possibly friends in that great host.

What this inherently means is that the saying no one cares about denominations any more does not translate to there is no longer any reason to be formed and know a specific faith tradition. Exactly what brings people to a community is a longing to be formed and informed by that community and its traditions. What no one cares about denominations any more truly means is that no one cares about the hubris and self righteousness of any particular sect of Christianity. Truth be told it is the sin of the church of the past decades and century that anyone ever did.

[1] the ordering of the service, such as where the confession is placed or where the Lord's Prayer is said, is consequential to the shape and feel of a particular liturgy and its affects and effects but not in regards to the discussion at hand. 

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